I did not write about Pentecost last week, even though in Bach’s time this was a three-day holiday with a cantata on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. And I am late with this Trinity post. Even her in California it is not Sunday anymore. However, it is all for a good reason …
Over the last couple of months I started missing my Bach books (which were scattered all over the house and which I sometimes did not even read anymore) and yearned for a space in my house that’s dedicated to my blog. So, after some visits to the local hardware store and the Swedish furniture store (always a little bit like going home for me) and a lot of help from my wonderful family, I now have a streamlined, quiet looking office, where I can look out of a window while I sit at the computer, and where I have the Bach books right by my side.
And how happy I was to go back to the books, the real research, instead of relying mostly on websites for my information. In my reading for Trinity Sunday in 1724, I discovered a very interesting new fact, something I wished I had known in October 2016.
I won’t beat myself up about it, since I still vividly remember October 2016 as my busiest month of the last five years, so I’ll forgive myself that I brought you a bit of fake news: I stated in this post that Bach didn’t write a cantata for Trinity 23 in 1724 because it was Reformation Day, October 31. If I had checked the “chronology” chapter in “The New Bach Reader” by David, Mendel, and Wolff, I would have seen that in that week in 1723, Bach went to inspect a new organ in the nearby town of Strömthal. He wrote a 12-movement-long cantata for the dedication of the new organ and the new church building in that village on November 2, 1723: cantata 194 Höcherwunschtes Freudenfest.
He repeated this cantata on Trinity Sunday 1724, though perhaps not in its entirety. Gardiner suggests Bach performed only the first six movements instead of all twelve in Leipzig, but I can’t find any explanation for this anywhere, so I’ll need to do more research on that subject, or, who knows, ask Gardiner? Would he email me back?
When listening to this music, two things might jumped out at me:
- This cantata, especially the opening chorus, sounds more like court music than church music. This is because Bach based the music for the Strömthal cantata on music he wrote for the court of Anhalt-Köthen where he worked from 1716 to 1723.
- In the opening chorus, the sopranos go up to a high C, which happens only in one other Bach cantata: BWV 151 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen. Based on instructions Bach wrote in the string parts for the players in Leipzig, scholars think that the organ as well as the oboes in Strömthal must have been tuned to “tiefer Cammerton” (A=390). Gardiner writes that this posed a “huge problem” for his performances of this cantata in 2000, and says they were obliged to transpose all the parts down, and he wonders why Bach had not done the same for his Leipzig revivals. The way some of Gardiner’s colleagues solve this problem with regards to the beautiful but extremely high bass aria, is to contract a famous baritone for this occasion, as on this recording of Harnoncourt with Thomas Hampson.
If indeed only the first half of this cantata was performed on Trinity Sunday in 1724, Bach would have added cantata 165 O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, which bears a much stronger relation to the Gospel of the day: Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, stating that only those who are reborn through water baptism and the Spirit (or Holy Ghost) can reach eternal life. (Find the text of that part of the Gospel of John here).
This cantata 165 was not a new composition either: Bach wrote it in Weimar in 1715. It is not completely certain that this cantata was also performed on Trinity Sunday in 1724, but most sources mention it and it is an interesting cantata with pretty arias and good word painting in the music, so I decided to include it here.
No recording of this cantata was satisfying to me in all the movements, so I made a playlist on YouTube with the soprano, alto, and tenor from the Gardiner recording (Ruth Holton, Daniel Taylor, Paul Agnew), and the bass from the Leonhardt recording (Max van Egmond). The opening aria is extremely hard and Ruth Holton does the best job of all recordings I listened to.
- the river in the soprano aria;
- the dark harmonies in the first bass recitative, illustrating the words sündig (sinful), Tod (death), and Verderben (destruction);
- the steadfastness (including a steadily moving river?) in the alto aria;
- the dramatic ending of the second bass recitative: on the words “wenn alle Kraft vergeht” (when all my strength fails) the bass part reaches its lowest note, Bach tells the violins to play piano, the keyboard player to not play any chords, and on the final note the strings have nothing, there is only one note of the continuo left;
- the healing snake in the tenor aria (in the strings), noting that in the preceding bass recitative, we have learned that the “old” snake (the venomous one/the one who seduced Eve) has turned into a new, healing snake.
Wieneke Gorter, June 11, 2017.
*Bach started working in Leipzig on the first Sunday after Trinity in 1723.